Little Love for Asteroid Retrieval Mission; Squyres Deeply Worried about SLS Launch Rate

Little Love for Asteroid Retrieval Mission; Squyres Deeply Worried about SLS Launch Rate

Only one of four witnesses at a congressional hearing Tuesday expressed enthusiasm for the Obama Administration’s new Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM).  No consensus emerged on an alternative, but ARM clearly faces an uphill battle.  Meanwhile, NASA Advisory Council Chair Steve Squyres expressed deep concern about the low expected launch rate of the Space Launch System (SLS) and implored Congress not to “pile more objectives onto NASA” unless it is prepared to provide adequate funding.

The May 21 hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee featured four witnesses with different perspectives on the next steps in human spaceflight, even as they and the subcommittee members all seemed to agree on the eventual destination – Mars.

The debate is over the intermediate steps to get there.

Lou Friedman, Executive Director Emeritus of the Planetary Society and co-chair of the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) report that proposed what morphed into ARM was the only advocate for that mission.  ARM is included in NASA’s FY2014 budget request and envisions sending a robotic spacecraft to capture an asteroid, redirect it into lunar orbit, and send astronauts there to study it.    Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute continued his quest for a human return to the surface of the Moon.  Cornell’s Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and chair of the NASA Advisory Council, agreed with two parts of the ARM proposal – searching for Near Earth Asteroids and sending astronauts to cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) – but eschewed the idea of capturing an asteroid and bringing it into lunar orbit for a visit by astronauts.   Doug Cooke, a NASA veteran who retired in 2011 after heading NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and is now a consultant, rued the lack of analysis and planning prior to announcing ARM and argued for development of a human exploration strategy that logically lays out the steps to Mars.

Subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle clearly are not convinced that ARM is the answer.   Subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) said he is “not convinced this mission is the right way to go and that it may actually prove a detour for a Mars mission.”  Ranking member Donna Edwards (D-MD) avoided outright opposition to ARM, but stressed that she needs to understand how it, as opposed to alternatives like returning to the Moon, would contribute to the goal of sending humans to the surface of Mars.

Friedman made his case in favor of ARM primarily on the basis that it is a mission that can be done soon and exciting missions with near-term results are needed to keep the public interested in human spaceflight.  Spudis disagreed. He thinks the point is to demonstrate there is value for the money spent and “an extensible, reusable system, a spacefaring system that allows us to do all the things we want to do at various spots in space” is the ticket.  He would start with a return to the lunar surface and utilizing the resources there.  “What we really seek is public support, not necessarily excitement,” he argued.  Squyres insisted that what is needed to win public support is an “unwavering focus on Mars as the destination,” citing the thousands of people who witnessed the landing of the Curiosity rover at 2:00 am in Times Square as evidence of enthusiasm for exploring Mars.

NASA explains ARM as part of a strategy to unite its human spaceflight, space technology and science activities in a common undertaking.  NASA Science Mission Directorate head John Grunsfeld stated flatly at the recent Humans to Mars Summit that ARM is not a science-driven mission, however.  Friedman acknowledged that sentiment at the hearing, and emphasized that it is a human spaceflight mission, but there will be benefits in the areas of searching for Near Earth Asteroids and learning about asteroids for planetary protection purposes as well as for companies that want to mine them.

Cooke’s main point was that the United States needs a logical strategy for human exploration.  Although steps are underway that support the long term goal of sending humans to Mars – such as development of SLS and Orion and robotic probes like Curiosity – an overarching “strategy does not exist today.”  He listed several questions that need to be answered as part of creating that strategy, such as what geopolitical goals the United States wants to achieve, what is our long term vision for human space exploration, and how to collaborate with international partners.  He said ARM does not have a “recognizable connection” to a long term strategy, does not appear to be based on consultation with stakeholders or international partners, and “appears to be a very complex mission with the potential for growing more complex and more costly.”

Squyres similarly finds no connection between ARM and Mars exploration, adding that he does not see the need for landing on any surface – the Moon, an asteroid or one of the moons of Mars – as preparation for landing on Mars.   He believes the capabilities needed to go to Mars can be demonstrated in cis-lunar space and, given the performance capabilities of SLS and Orion, it is the “only significant destination beyond low Earth orbit that can be reached for the foreseeable future.”  He said that although there was no consensus among the witnesses as to all the steps to Mars, he believed they did agree that cis-lunar space should be next.

His emphatic message to the subcommittee was that Congress should not specify any other destination or timetable unless it is prepared to give NASA the needed funding.  NASA is “being asked to do too much with too little” and the situation is “chronic, severe and getting worse,” he asserted.  “I beg of you not to pile more objectives on NASA because they can’t even afford what they’re doing now.”

Another concern Squyres stressed is the low flight rate for the Space Launch System (SLS).  “I’m deeply worried,” he told Edwards, because no other human spaceflight system has had such a low anticipated launch rate.  The first SLS launch is expected in 2017, the second in 2021, and then once every two years thereafter.  SLS and the Orion spacecraft need to be adequately funded “to be proven out on a pace that really supports … a safe pathway” to cis-lunar space, Squyres insisted.   Cooke agreed.  The flight rate is driven “totally” by funding, he said, and “they definitely need more funding … starting with inflation.”  NASA’s budget is currently projected to be flat, with no adjustment for inflation, which erodes buying power as the years pass.

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